Postcard : Roberto Echeto's Minimal Photomontages

...eighty-eight elephants, big like seeds, surround them...

Roberto Echeto (Caracas, Venezuela, 1970) draws, produces radio programs, and is a writer. He has published three collections of stories (Cuentos líquidos, Breviario galante, and La máquina clásica), a novel (No habrá final), and an essay (Maniobras elementales), for which he won the 2015 Concurso Transgenérico de la Fundación para la Cultura Urbana. In 2018, he participated in University of Iowa's International Writing Program.

    I had the privilege of meeting Roberto Echeto when he was in Iowa City as part of the International Writing Program’s 2018 cohort. At the Spanish-language IWP reading shortly after the writers arrived, I listened, delighted, as Roberto read prose poems that touched on everything from Anish Kapoor to Greek mythology. I left the reading without introducing myself, certain that someone in the translation workshop offered in conjunction with the residency had already leapt at the chance to work with him.
    But for a variety of practical reasons, the translator paired with Roberto ended up being me. Roberto sent me a series of interconnected poems that I think could (should?) be read as one slyly, chillingly, intergalactic epic poem. One afternoon, I walked into Java House, a draft of my translation in hand, and unleashed a barrage of questions. As we moved through the poem(s) stanza by stanza, he proved to be the kind of writer translators dream of—patient with the hyper-specific questions I’d squeezed into the margins of my draft, thoughtful and thorough in his responses, and ready to see the translation as a new piece of writing whose conversation with the original could sometimes be bidirectional.
The poems included here are not that work; they’re part of a “Fotomontajes” project  I translated selections from after the residency had ended, and Roberto had flown home. The conversation we began at Java House continued over email. I would press “Send” on a batch of queries after midnight in Iowa City, and he would respond the following day from Caracas. Both of our Iowa City chapters have now come to a close but the conversation continues.

--Jennifer Shyue

Roberto Echeto: Elefante

In the shadow of the ficus, between the stones and the bromeliads, Teresa Carreño and Cecil Taylor take their coffee.

They don’t talk about the black and white keys.

Or the dark teak of future furniture.

They talk about the lawn trod by Min Tanaka as he dances with a dragon.

Eighty-eight elephants, big like seeds, surround them.

A hummingbird with a woman’s face seeks the tree of the pianos.

And smiles.


  We cannot free ourselves of the night
we carry on our backs.
  Anthony Braxton knows this, like we all know it,
but he does not bemoan it.
  He cultivates shapes behind the shapes,
complex lines of breath,
traces rhombi and angles with his arms
and eyes,
sketches that cut across algebra
and sink into the air,
fleeing the earth
that awaits us always.


  In the mirror of the tailor shop, José Gregorio Hernández and Carlos Zerpa examine how they look in their identical suits. Behind them, a donkey painted like a zebra watches and shoots them an approving look.

  The tailor (as austere in his role as he is sultry in life) makes his appearance in the front room; he’s wheeling a cart on which sit four glasses of Toddy, a copy of The Philosophy of Time Travel, a box of Marlboros and an ashtray in blue.

  Learning to slip through life’s dull afternoons.

  That’s high art.





Jennifer Shyue is a translator from Spanish. She has an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa and a BA in Comparative Literature from Princeton University. Her translations have appeared or are forthcoming in American Chordata, Shenandoah, and Inventory.